September 11, 2001 changed the lives of many Americans in a variety of ways and U.S. Navy Command Master Chief Constance Hayes is no different from the numerous others.
The Indianola native was stationed in Jacksonville, Fla. and working as an air traffic controlman when manned aircrafts crashed into the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
A 1999 graduate of Gentry High School, she is the daughter of Sandra Brim and Michael B. Perrin, a judge.
When she joined the military out of high school, it was a fulfilment of a promise she had made to her mother. She joined the Navy, in particular, because she has always liked the water, and she liked the branch’s uniforms.
Her mother had wanted to join the Air Force herself when she graduated from high school, but the cost was more than she was willing to pay.
“Back then, they told her because she had a child, she would have to sign her rights over to my grandparents. She didn’t want to do that,” Hayes said.
Hayes said although her mother could have restored her rights after returning home from training/service, she refused to do that.
Hayes was able to serve her country, and on the morning of September 11, she was able to do this in a monumental way.
Although the military trained her to be prepared to handle situations like 9/11, Hayes said when it happens it’s still not something she could have completely been ready for.
A typical setup for controlmen, she said, is for four controllers to be in a room with three monitors each, for extended hours.
Her screen went black after the first plane struck the tower in New York.
When the computer screen goes black it is a signal for all traffic controlmen to know that something has gone wrong somewhere, and at that point, they have to wait until their supervisor comes and tells them what has happened.
“What we do, as air traffic controlmen, we monitor 10 aircrafts at a time, 16 hours a day. All of those monitors went black, which means you have an aircraft that can possibly have family or military, when they go black you have no idea what's going on," Hayes said.
By Hayes’ account, a few seconds after the monitors went black, their supervisor ran up into the tower to tell her and her co-workers to get all of their aircraft on the ground as soon as possible.
"We still have no computers at that time, so we have to go old school, take out your maps, longitude, latitude, get everybody in your ear,” she said.
Hayes described the situation as very intense.
Now, even to this day, talking about it makes the hairs on her arms stand on end, she said.
She said it was a moment that she will never forget.
“You don't want to be that traffic controlman where your plane just crashed into a building, because those lives are in your hand," she said.
Hayes said it took about two minutes to get nine of her 10 planes grounded, but the last one presented a bit of a quandary.
"Maybe 45 seconds, these were probably the longest 45 seconds of my life. My 10th pilot didn't respond. I had no idea where he was," said Hayes.
She said it was only in the 46th second that she heard from him. Hayes said her biggest fear at the time was why the pilot was not communicating with her. She was waiting for him to say, "I'm here, all is accounted for."
Those 45 seconds - three-quarters of a minute¬ - may not seem like a lot to most people, but for Hayes, the time was almost unbearable.
"Families are on there, people are on there. I don't know what's happening," she said.
It was not until after her last plane was on the ground that they were informed about the attack on the towers.
"Right when he (the pilot) responded is when our captain tells us what is happening," Hayes said.
Hayes said she cannot even begin to imagine how the controlman whose plane crashed into the towers must have felt.
She said in the midst of what was happening, she had to watch helplessly like everyone else, but noted a significant dissimilarity. “You feel different, because this is your co-worker's plane that actually just crashed. It's not just people. Their lives are in your hands, Hayes said, “Your life was in my hands. If you were up in the air at that point. I have to make sure that you're okay.”
She said her concern doesn’t end just because it wasn’t a plane that she had control over that crashed.
“Even though my team was on the ground, you still worry," she said.
Because of the great psychological impact such an experience can have on a person, Hayes said they were ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation the day after the crash to make sure they were mentally capable of continuing their job.
She said with her, there's always the lingering thought that it could happen again; so that one experience changes your life forever.
"You just pray. You pray and you pray hard,” she said.
In describing her day-to-day interactions with the planes and their pilots, Hayes said, "They don't listen to me all the time. I watch them, I schedule them to fly past each other a minute and a half."
She said a pilot could be in the air and not know that a plane just passed them by a minute and a half prior.
"That's my job, to schedule them like that," she said.
The 9/11 attack was not Hayes’ only life-defining experience. She was on the ground, hands on, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
That 16th anniversary just passed a little over a week ago.
Her experience there was heart wrenchingly different compared to September 11.
In describing it, Hayes said, "But to have to walk through water that's over my knees and literally push bodies out the way to help this person, because they may still be alive, it's something you'll never in your life ever forget if you experience it."
And to add to her experience, when she returned home to Jacksonville from New Orleans, she found that her own home had flooded as a result of the storms.
In the aftermath of situations like 9/11 and Katrina, Hayes’ role as an air traffic controlman is superseded by the work required on the ground, which is just to help out in any way possible, to be a helper in whatever area they want her to.
Hayes can still recall how she felt as a young cadet, training for events servicemen and women hope they never have to actually engage.
“When you’re an 18-year-old, an only child, you take a lot of things for granted. You trained for certain things and at 18 you don't have a care or worry in the world,” she said.
Reflecting back on these experiences, she said, “I was only a child. You hear the stories, certain things, but you never at no point say that this is going to happen. You take it for granted until it actually hits you.”
Hayes has two teenage sons and said she tells them every day when they open their eyes to appreciate what they have.
“I've been overseas. I've been to 11 different countries. I’ve worked there, I've seen things, (and) I’ve experienced certain things that make you proud to be an American. And we take it for granted,” Hayes said.
Based primarily in Florida during her military career, she has traveled to Spain, and many other countries in Europe, including several locations in France, as well as China and non-continental states like Alaska; however, the one place she missed was Australia.
She has always wanted to go but so far hasn’t had the chance to get there.
Hayes retired from the Navy in July of 2019 and now works in the protein/collagen industry.
“If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing.
“To make my mom and dad proud was the greatest accomplishment ever,” she said.